Rose Ayling-Ellis's Strictly Come Dancing victory raised awareness about deafness. Now it's time to teach sign language in schools – Christine Jardine MP

At some point this week the decorations will come down, I’ll head back to parliament and another Christmas and New Year will be consigned to memory.

Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice celebrate after winning the final of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing (Picture: Guy Levy/BBC/PA Wire)
Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice celebrate after winning the final of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing (Picture: Guy Levy/BBC/PA Wire)

But this year there is something I want to take with me. It is a realisation, and a determination, rooted in a moment of television magic.

It is the image of Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice dancing in the silence on Strictly Come Dancing that was a surprise to most of us watching, but normality for Rose, which is my stand-out moment of 2021.

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It brought home, to many of us for the first time, how different life would be if we were to lose its sound.

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Its immediate impact was even greater than that of their spectacular victory in a Strictly final that was a visual representation of the diversity we would all want to see in boardrooms and workplaces up and down the country. Entertainment television which conveyed the most powerful of messages.

Too often we are only aware of an issue when it affects us or a loved one personally. Or we are swept up in a moment and say “oh something must be done”, only to let our good intentions slip away again.

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So it has sadly been with deafness.

Dame Evelyn Glennie did much to change attitudes and break down barriers in the 1980s and 1990s with her astonishing percussion performances.

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It is 36 years since Marlee Matlin’s Oscar and Golden Globe awards for Best Actress for her performance in Children of a Lesser God were hailed as a sea change for disability inclusion.

But she is still the only deaf performer to have won an academy award, and is among only a handful, of whom Rose is another, to break through.

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The achievements of both Glennie and Matlin should, if we’re getting it right, have become the norm by now.

When Penny Morduant, as minister for equalities, presented a statement to the house simultaneously in English and British sign language (BSL) there was universal praise and predictions of great change. I have not noticed very much.

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While all TV programmes and internet clips now come with subtitles, you very often have to record or watch them in the early hours of the morning if you want to see them with the BSL interpreter.

Progress, yes. But not nearly enough.

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In the immediate aftermath of Rose’s win, there was a massive increase in interest in learning about hearing impairment. The number of inquiries to deaf charities rocketed. The demand from those wanting to learn British sign language increased several hundred-fold.

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But there is a danger that all of that genuine, heart-felt support and recognition will be allowed to fade with the memories of Christmas.

That is where we all have our part to play in ensuring that the momentum is not lost and that politicians like myself are constantly reminded of the need for action to match public sentiment.

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We know and have the evidence from the past two years that harnessing public awareness can move political mountains.

Doddie Weir has worked near miracles in awakening us all to the reality of motor neurone disease. His campaign has propelled demands for research both into public consciousness and priorities of government.

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Similarly Marcus Rashford shamed the government into action to ensure that our most vulnerable children do not go hungry, and his work goes on.

This week I received an email from the Edinburgh group Deaf Action about BSL classes for families which I then posted on social media.

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The group’s notice warns that places are limited, prompting a constituent to ask me why I thought we do not teach British sign language to children in school? There is no good answer.

Somehow it seems an omission rooted in old-fashioned ideas and an unenlightened approach to mainstream education which failed to provide for those who were in any way different. That is very far from acceptable.

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I do have one friend who works in the education system as an interpreter working directly with a hearing impaired child.

And while that is valuable progress, it is only part of the solution. No child in our society should have to communicate with their peers only through an interpreter.

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Surely we could and should have BSL as part of the curriculum in our schools?

How much would it cost to simply teach it along with the alphabet when our children are at their most receptive?

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Many years ago, I remember a friend teaching her toddler sign language as he was learning to speak. She explained that it is the point in our lives when we are a blank canvass and learn most easily.

I was embarrassed that I had not been able to do the same, or thought to try.

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And it frustrates me that while our children can rightly choose to learn French, Spanish, German, Italian and even Gaelic in their classroom, they do not have access to a language that could improve their ability to communicate with members of their own community, and improve their quality of life.

Throughout this past series of Strictly, people on the show and elsewhere paid tribute to Rose for what she has done for the deaf community.

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How she has highlighted that anything is possible and overcome so many hurdles. She undoubtedly has.

But now it is up to the rest of us to ensure that the awareness she has raised is not lost.

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Somewhere this Christmas, someone was losing their hearing or learning that their child’s hearing will be impaired.

I will be taking that thought back to Westminster with me.

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Christine Jardine is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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